For nearly three years, Joe Biden’s spokespeople have responded to questions about asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border by pointing to an immigration bill he proposed on the day he was sworn in as president. That bill was dead on arrival.
Now, with just months to go in an election contest he has described as an existential choice for American voters, he has chosen to throw his weight behind a bipartisan compromise bill that is far harsher than the progressive-tinged proposal he originally pitched. Not only that, but this one looks to be as equally dead as his own plan in January 2021.
Biden’s eleventh-hour shift on immigration policy came in the form of a Senate-authored bill hammered out between GOP hardliner James Lankford, liberal Democrat Chris Murphy, Independent Kyrsten Sinema and White House negotiators. It was born out of harsh political realities imposed on him by Mike Johnson, the still-new-ish Republican Speaker of the House whose previous claim to fame was masterminding efforts among his colleagues to unlawfully prevent certification of Biden’s win.
Johnson, a close ally of Donald Trump, didn’t need to see the text of the carefully-crafted Senate bill to declare that it won’t ever see the light of the day in the chamber he controls. Not long afterwards, his second-in-command, Majority Leader Steve Scalise, took to X/Twitter to echo the same sentiment from his sickbed as he recovered from a stem cell transplant to treat his multiple myeloma.
The decision to kill a bill that would solve what the GOP has described as a “crisis” from the day of Biden’s inauguration might seem strange to an outsider. But the logic behind it is actually pretty simple. Solving any border-related problems would short-circuit Trump’s efforts to use immigration as an election-year cudgel against Biden. Trump is counting on the specter of nonwhite migrants claiming asylum in droves as a talking point in the coming months. If the problem is solved, the opportunity to bang that drum disappears.
Biden spent two-plus years pushing for a progressive border bill that went nowhere even when Democrats controlled both the House and Senate (in part thanks to Republican filibusters and the help of Sinema and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin in protecting that obstructive power.) He now has to count on some deus ex machina to sway enough Senate votes to get the bill past the upper chamber’s de facto supermajority threshold and pray for the Senate to steamroll House Republicans one more time. Right now, all of that looks unlikely — in part because the Senate’s two Latino senators, Alex Padilla of California and New Jersey senator Bob Menendez, oppose the bill.
Add in the fact that the GOP also wants to deny Biden a foreign policy win in the form of the Ukraine funding tied to the border bill, and you can see what a tangle the president is in. His hopes of continuing to spearhead the defence of democracy abroad are most likely dashed, as well despite his willingness to go along with Republican demands to link the two.
Biden is a man who spent three-plus decades as a Senate dealmaker. He may, therefore, hold out hope that he can make this one work. But given the Republican animus towards the 46th president, it’s unlikely that anyone will lift a finger to do help him — or to cross Trump — in an election year.
Biden has some similar problems in the international arena.
For weeks now, US negotiators have been working on reviving the normalisation talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia, even amid the devastation wrought by Israel’s war on Hamas. That conflict, which has killed tens of thousands in Gaza, has brought low Biden’s standing among Muslim Americans, Arab Americans, and younger Americans.
Despite months of indications that Arab Americans and young voters are deserting him over the Gaza war, Biden’s support for right-wing Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — which began on October 7, after the terrorist attacks by Hamas militants — hasn’t wavered.
Netanyahu — who, like Biden’s presumed 2024 opponent needs to stay in power to stay out of prison — has a long history of meddling in US politics in an effort to help out the Republican Party.
Yet Biden has seemingly chosen to forget this history and allow Netanyahu’s desires — and those of his right-wing ethnonationalist cabinet ministers — to guide his hand in continuing to give Israel carte blanche to use US-supplied weapons against the Gaza Strip.
In both cases — the US-Mexico border and the battle over Gaza — the people who Biden needs to help him would like nothing more than to hurt him so they can enjoy a second Trump term.
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